Although the term veganism was first coined in 1944, its place in the recent cultural zeitgeist has largely been relegated to that one-month phase your worst friend went through three years ago and hasn’t stopped talking—bragging?—about since. Of course, veganism is an honorable commitment with a raft of documented health and environmental benefits, but it’s hard to imagine life without cheeseburgers. In the court of public opinion, the vegan lifestyle has always seemed undeniably noble, but carried the weight of certain stigmas.
This is changing.
For the first time ever, Maryland Vegan Restaurant Week will demonstrate that vegan food can be delicious and satisfying. From February 8 to the 18, more than 30 restaurants in Baltimore and the surrounding areas will offer special vegan menus (while Charm City has been celebrating a veganism week for the past three years, this is the first time the rest of the state is getting in on the fun). Venerable omnivorous—that’s vegan-speak for “non-vegan”—institutions such as Miss Shirley’s, R. House, and Gertrude’s will try their hand at plant-based cuisine, demonstrating how this event has permeated the mainstream and is working to reshape it.
“When I go out with my husband or my daughter, we’d like to see more on the menu than just a salad,” said Naijha Wright-Brown, the event’s co-founder and owner of The Land of Kush, a vegan soul-food restaurant in Mt. Vernon. “Part of this event is showing how creative you can be with vegan dishes.”
So, where should a curious meat-lover start on their journey to vegan-dom?
“Start with sweets, something you know you like,” advised Wright-Brown, “and the only difference you’ll notice is that you feel better afterwards.”
Luckily, there are plenty of places to sample your first vegan brownie, since Baltimore’s vegan scene is by no means a small niche. While veganism has gained traction all over the country, it has especially resonated in Baltimore.
“When I moved here over the summer, one of the first things I noticed was the number and, also, the quality of vegan restaurants” said Erin Johnson, a social media influencer who practices a vegan lifestyle. “As a transplant from the Bay Area, I just feel like, ‘Why doesn’t California have this?’”
Surprisingly, Baltimore is showing up the Bay Area in this department (as they did in Super Bowl XLVII). Beyond showcasing the endless possibilities of plant-based food, Vegan Restaurant Week is a celebration of the city itself and the people who live in it. The event is about more than new menu items—it is about fostering belonging.
“Food is about community,” said Samantha Claassen, the event’s co-founder and the owner of Golden West Cafe, a vegan-friendly southwestern restaurant in Hampden, “but it can be very challenging to find a vegan meal when you’re around other [non-vegan] people. We wanted to create a space where people could come together.”
During the themed week, this camaraderie will manifest itself through partnerships with organizations such as Vegan Drinks (a national vegan happy hour community) and No Meat Athlete (a vegan running club) to host a happy hour, run, and karaoke night, which, presumably, is no different than standard karaoke, save for a hard ban on Webstar and Young B’s 2006 classic “Chicken Noodle Soup.”
“Being a vegan can be very socially isolating,” said Rissa Miller, the founder of the Baltimore chapter of Vegan Drinks, “so, with Vegan Drinks, I wanted people to not only support plant-based restaurants and restaurateurs, but also each other.”
Baltimore’s vegan scene is also united by a singularity of purpose: to make the world a better place. According to a report by the United Nations, farmed livestock is responsible for over 14 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions; the polar ice caps are melting one porterhouse at a time. This fact is not lost on Baltimore vegans.
“I think part of the reason that veganism has caught on in Baltimore is that we’re on the coast,” said Elena Johnson (no relation to Erin), the owner and chef of the French-inspired vegan spot L’Eau de Vie Organic Brasserie in Fells Point. “We know what’s happening and what’s going to happen.”
Similarly, Wright-Brown noted that veganism is the natural result of Baltimore’s fierce civic pride. “Baltimore has a large population of activists and advocates who have introduced people to the idea that being vegan can save your body, save the planet, and save the animals,” she said. “Climate change is happening and people are getting educated and people love their city so they’re passionate about what they do.”
All sizzle, no steak never tasted so good.